Frog in hot water

John Garver, a leading American expert on Sino-Indian relations, has likened Beijing’s strategy towards India to the traditional Chinese way of cooking a frog. Plonk the frog in a vessel and turn up the heat slowly. If the water was hot to begin with or the temperature were to rise much too quickly, the frog would simply jump out and escape.But if the heat is turned up gradually, the frog luxuriates in the warming water, unmindful of the fate awaiting it until it is too late for it to do anything.

Having contained India strategically to the subcontinent by nuclear arming Pakistan and, with the urgings of military assistance and economic aid, encouraged its landward neighbours (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal) to stand up to India, Beijing is even tempting Bhutan to look east and away from New Delhi for its needs. Such developments are forcing the Indian government to be preoccupied with its immediate periphery
rather than to focus on strategic issues.

With the idea of further confining the frog to the vessel, Beijing has worked hard to alienate the adjoining maritime states from India as well, turning the once welcoming waters of the Indian Ocean into a cauldron that, should New Delhi continue with its wayward policies, may soon boil over. Here again the means used are tried and tested — a spate of high-value infrastructure projects are but a thinly veiled wedge to mine the mother lode of Sri Lankan and Maldivan resentment against “big brother” India.

The modern container port complex in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, a container port and another airport upcoming in the Maldives, and armaments by the shipload to Bangladesh are real gains for these countries and could be the precursor of more such projects to draw these island and littoral states into the Chinese security orbit as a means of neutralizing India’s dominant position astride the busiest, most strategic of oceanic highways.
Combined with Beijing consolidating its political hold on Nepal through the Maoist cadres and making deep inroads into Burma by constructing the north-south road and rail transportation and energy grids, it is also tying up Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia in oil and gas pipeline network to deliver energy resources to China’s western provinces of Xinjiang and Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT). Beijing’s plan is grand and audacious both in its conception and implementation. The increasingly marginalised New Delhi, meanwhile, morosely chews the cud, limiting India’s options at every turn, such as by not getting in on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Colombo, Male, Kathmandu and Yangbon, meanwhile, play up the virtues of a “friendly” China, and preen themselves, being finally in a position to command New Delhi’s attention and respect.

The Chinese strategy of alienating the neighbours from India and consolidating its own presence in the region is deftly prosecuted with soft words issuing in tandem with hard, well-thought-out actions, with the Indian government, predisposed to doing nothing, lulled into inaction. Despite all the evidence of the warming water, the Indian frog seems determined to not feel the heat.

National security adviser Shivshankar Menon, apparently oblivious to the developments adversely affecting India’s vital national interests in the Indian Ocean Region, declared the other day that “maritime rivalry with China is not inevitable.” Such pronouncements do nothing, of course, to prevent New Delhi appearing foolish, confirming the Chinese estimation of this country as a“pushover state”.

The Chinese have concluded that it pays to talk peace and trade, but with an overlay of the hardline. Thus, even as the visiting People’s Liberation Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, signed an agreement renewing joint military exercises and service-to-service exchanges, Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear that a resolution of the India-China border dispute is not on the cards because it “won’t be easy”.
This raises the question whether New Delhi’s eagerness to resolve the dispute isn’t misplaced, and whether it would not be more prudent to formally shelve the special track dialogue rather than try and revive it as Mr Menon seems intent on doing during his planned Beijing trip in the second week of April. With the Chinese voicing the futility of such dialogue, his insistence on it reveals desperation— from the Chinese perspective, it is a sign of weakness.

Mr Xi met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Brics Summit in Durban to discuss terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. It is an issue that is to be followed up with official talks in Beijing. The Chinese, it is obvious, will use the terrorism issue to zero in on Tibetan unrest and the alleged Indian hand stoking it. The Indian representatives would do well to remind the Chinese that India accepted China’s suzeraingty on the premise of a genuinely “autonomous” Tibet, which cannot be taken to mean Indian quiescence in the face of sustained state violence against the Tibetan people, and that it is time Beijing respected the inherent rights of Tibetans in their own homeland. This will hint at the hard options open to India of aiding the Tibetan freedom movement in the future.

Such plain talking should be followed up by arming, on a priority basis, Vietnam with nuclear missiles and distributing the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile to any Southeast Asian country that wants it. Those who suggest that New Delhi should try and co-manage Asia with a fast-ascending China should consider where that would get India, already seen to be lacking in the essentials that constitute great power. It is a reputation that will repel countries from rallying to the Indian standard and seeking security in a milieu roiled by Chinese aggressiveness. New Delhi being over-mindful of Beijing’s concerns has only worsened India’s relative position.

It is time India joined Japan, Asean and Taiwan to impose on Beijing the costs of living dangerously. The process of reversing the heat to cook the Chinese frog in the South China Sea waters is long overdue.

[Published March 29, 2013 in the ‘Ásian Agé’ at, and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Japan, Missiles, Northeast Asia, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, South Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, West Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Frog in hot water

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Oh no, not again. It was a hawkish Indian lobby that forced Nehru to reject a compromise, which was much to India’s advantage, offered by Zhou Enlai, of a China that was reeling under the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, on the boundary dispute. The result is well known. That was then…… forward to contemporary times. There is a similar hawkish lobby, deviously at work again. But thankfully it is not being heard much in the corridors that matter. Heavens be revered for little mercies.

    How often have we not heard about the String of Pearls(SoP) that China is so meticulously crafting to encircle India and confine it to its wretched, godforsaken neighbourhood. Doesn’t this strategy involving a back- breaking economic cost over the next several decades, in a region where relationships change faster than the chameleon, betray a fear/ respect for the ascendant India? Isn’t this a bizarre admission of the emergent might of an India that @BK suggests is already seen to be lacking in the essentials that constitute great power? Is this not the classic hypothetical contradiction? We must recheck our premises.

    China desperately needs its economic growth to employ and sustain its huge population that is rapidly becoming enamoured of the good life and connected world. One that is increasingly aspirational and has little patience for the Maoist concept of revolution. A population that will not stand by quietly if the triad of the Party, SOE/ SASAC and the military- industrial complex fails to deliver. Most of the energy for the burgeoning Chinese economy flows through the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean and the Malacca straits, venerable choke- points on a several thousand km journey by sea, with no easy access from the mainland and in an area where current and future hegemons call the shots, with an ability to strangle China to a slow and painful demise. The SoP is a defensive strategy that China desperately needs to ensure its very survival.

    Even so, it is a threat for India, one that it needs to acknowledge and tackle expeditiously and sensibly. This, by all open source accounts, is reflected in the ongoing modernisation and expansion of the navy, armed forces and deterrence arsenal. To ensure that India is not strategically wrong- footed, again, it must look for alliances along the routes through which Chinese life- blood flows. China is building the SoP around India alright. But look at the riff- raff she is condemned to muster as allies and compare it to the potential for India with its current foreign policy focus and growing relations based on mutual respect/ shared interests with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Phillipines, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and of course the US, close to the Chinese jugular. To nuclear/ missile proliferate in the region, as propagated by @BK, is an idea that is downright ridiculous and must be consigned to the waste bin ASAP. Alliances with established giants lead to loss of sovereignty, will be the next shrill cry from the hawks. To that I can only say, grow up, out of your warped colonial mindset and learn to meet the world fair and square with self- confidence.

    Competition with China is inevitable, but competition does not necessarily imply enmity. To buid our economic strength in order to sustain the growing military muscle while lifting our hapless millions out of abject poverty should be the medium term goal. To pursue such lofty missions, adoption of a non- adversarial approach is both rational and sagacious. In every international engagement there is bound to be some degree of give and take. There is no space for absolutism in international relations as every tyrannical hegemon has learnt sooner rather than later, throughout the blood- stained mosaic of world history. Or should we refuse to learn from the events of the past few decades and be condemned to repeat the follies of many a comers, who face ill- perceived existential threats from adversaries….a la North Korea, Pakistan etc as @Bk appears to be so passionately advocating?

    Way to go Mr NSA, detractors like @BK notwithstanding!!!

    • One of the main themes I have stressd over the years is the need to have strong strategic and comprehensive relations with Asian rimland countries as part of an organic Asian security architecture — something that will be explored in greater detail in my forthcoming book — ‘Índia’s Rise: Why It’s Not a Great Power (Yet)’ (Potomac books, Washington DC, Sept 2013), and less reliance on the US. Relying on Asian powers rather than on America, an extra-territorial offshore balancer, will assure India security, and Asian stability. This is not an overhang from our colonial past, but simple reading of extant reality. Obviously, there are many like you — and greater the pity — in govt who believe the US will provide succour. Welcome to cloud Cuckooland! Nuclear missile arming Vietnam, etc., which I have been advocating is consistent with this strategy and what’s needed to turn China’s periphery into a nogo zone for Beijing as Beijing has done to India via a nuclearized Pak. Tit for tat is the oldest principle of war — the Hamurabi code! And China appreciates it more than anything else.

      • RK Anuj says:

        You fail to get the point, so blinkered is the vision. It’s not about the US alone, my post being clear as mud. As economic interests of the Far East, India, Australia and the US converge, their destinies become increasingly intertwined for the foreseeable future. US may or may not provide succour, hence more the need for us to bide our time till we build our own muscle. Impatience cost the li’l baby dear. As for your laughable idea of nuclear/ missile proliferation, tit for tat is for the dimwits, cause they can think no better. Isn’t the current level of proliferation cause enough for worry with non- state players queering the pitch further? You really want more of that rubbish!! And if you feel restricted in the neighbourhood with a nuclear armed Pakistan, more’s the pity. How then are you contemplating all this manoeuvring in the Far East? Extant realities are best viewed with an open mind and not a paranoid psyche.

      • RK Anuj says:

        Oh BTW, your old habit of quoting out of context……. the Hammurabi Code had little to do with principles of war.

      • Am rising to your bait soon after saying I won’t.But I won’t after this.Look at the Hamurabi code as relating to trade, military, etc. By your reckoning then Chanakya’s arthashastra has no bearings on intl relns because most of it like the Hamurabi code concerns a state’s internal functioning. Thou’ my reference was to Hamurabi’s famous “ëye for an eye” edict. And spare us going Gandhian — and we’ll all be blind. etc. The intl system is to do with hard realpolitik, not gullible asides about joining the the US or anybody else to save our interests.

      • RK Anuj says:

        Strategy is more about avoiding the need to go to War rather than bringing it on. As a principle of strategy, possibly the Hammurabi Code may qualify, with a little blink of the eye. But as a principle if war, none ever advocated an Eye for an Eye. Coming from an eminent scholar, the misquote is likely to confuse uncertain minds!

  2. Ah, down to name-calling, eh? Shows a bare cupboard. N-Pak has to be coopted — it is eminently cooptable, and nothing to do with how we handle SE and FE Asia. Indeed, all the more reason to treat these countries esp of Asean as the first tier of defence as I have again been advocating. The idea is to keep China preoccupied as as far from our own borders and backyard as is possible. If you are so keen on the whole nine yards (or whatever, you may care to read the comprehensive strategy detailed in my books (‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, 2nd ed, 2005, 1st ed 2002, Macmillan India; ‘Índia’s Nuclear Policy’, 2008, Praeger, and ‘Strategic Sellout: Indian-US Nuclear Deal’ with PK Iyengar, AN Prasad, & A Gopalakrishnan, 2009, Pentagon Press) and innumerable chapters international and Indian anthologies — far more serious stuff than op/eds and blogs that I consider, as per the great Graham Greene’s typology — as “ëntertainment”. The choice is yours — to be entertained and limited to the blog level, or read the more serious stuff — my books, if you are at all seriously inclined. For myself, I am disinclined to waste time, get into interminable bouts of name-calling and rhetoric, because it does not progress the debate any. Consider this my last missive in response to your kind of shrill, reactive, blogging.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Wonder what in my thread riled you to to the extent? Name- calling, apologies, if any I may have used, though it’s not a patch on your many such endeavours in the numerous articles and blogs, a prolific writer that you are. Or is the truth behind my views beginning to taste bitter. Ah, the merits of reading books vis- a- vis blogging. Let me assure you that yours are but a few drops in the ocean, interesting though they may be.

      Or, coming to think of it, is it the revelation of the out of context quotes?…

      Is my blogging really so shrill, aggressive and reactive. What then of all your articles?

  3. satyaki says:

    @Anuj: More than any hawkish lobby, it was the mismatch between our actual military capabilities and what we sought to hold/achieve that led to the 1962 debacle. The solution would have not been to kowtow to China or accept territorial compromises. It should have been to do what is necessary to build military muscle to an extent that deters any adversary.

    The biggest damage China has done to our strategic interests is nuke proliferation to Pak (without which a non-nuclear Pak would have had no ability to provoke a nuclear armed India). Given the way China has been encouraging our tiny neighbors to militate against our natural right to strategically dominate them, we too ought to support attempts by China’s weaker neighbors to stand up to China’s hegemony. The end outcome would of this may probably be an Asia where everybody (not just India but (especially) China as well) is forced to accomodate everybody else’s interests.

    Among South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, only Vietnam would count as a military middle weight or even better (the others being military lightweights depending almost entirely on U.S. protection vis a vis their adversaries). Therefore, if Vietnam is willing to walk out of the NPT, helping Vietnam go nuclear yields very high benefit for a low cost. The benefit to cost ratio for proliferating nukes to Vietnam would probably be better than the benefit to cost ratio for China in proliferating to Pakistan (given that Vietnam is not the kind of terrorist entity that Pakistan is).

    In the end of the day, all constraints in our nuclear behavior appear to be due to our paying undue respect to the west’s concerns. It is time that we got out of this mindset altogether and did what it takes to secure our interests ourselves. While our interests could and do converge with the west on some issues, they do not on matters related to the buildup of our own deterrent. Our actions should make it clear to the west that there is no hope of their having their way on this core national interest of ours.

    • RK Anuj says:

      About the hawkish lobby, I was clearly referring to events prior to the 62 skirmish. My views on the rest of it are clear enough. Bye for now.

      • The events prior to ’62 skirmish are precisely the reason why we should not be complacent with China, If today’s news reported by PTI about Chinese incursions in Ladakh are taken in consideration then Bharat’s points in the article need to be introspected and not dismissed with grandstanding jargons like hawkish lobby, colonial mindset etc. If China was interested in peace it would not pick fights with which ever neighbor it feels can be pushed around. The next generation of Chinese are likely to be even more indoctrinated in what their “rightful borders” are. So keeping a military balance is of utmost importance viz. China and of course it should be done with indigenous weapons capability and making alliances with countries in the APAC. I don’t know about nuclear arming Vietnam because I am not sure they want to be nuclear armed in the first place. But selling conventional weapons and missiles to Vietnam certainly makes sense to me as a layman. Joint weapons development with Japanese private sector also makes more sense to me because they will have the technical capability which we need for modernization and we will have the cost advantage and experience. All in all more private sector defense industry within India and cutting edge indigenous weapons are the answer to China and China cannot be dealt with by us alone we need separate one-to-one alliances with China’s neighbors(Singapore/Japan/Vietnam) not necessarily under US umbrella to deal with China.

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